This essay will look at how different ideals and views of childhood are portrayed in children’s literature from a chronological perspective. The focus will be on English language literature printed for children and popular titles across different time periods will be discussed. The various discourses of childhood evident within literature will be highlighted, noting the changes that have occurred over time and the reasons behind this. One of the earliest examples of literature written specifically for children can be found in 15th century ‘courtesy books’.
These were often written in rhyming verse and had a clear instructional focus rather than a narrative form. For example, Child over men’s houses no stones fling Nor at glass windows no stones sling Nor make no crying, jokes nor plays In holy Church on holy days… (From The Babees’ Book (15th century) text modernised by John Rowe Townsend, 1990, p. 4, cited in Hall, 2003, p. 137) Courtesy books reflected the dominant Puritanical discourse of the time in Britain and America. This model of childhood was based on the Christian concept of ‘original sin’ and saw children as naturally sinful and in need of control and correction.
The ominous consequences of misbehaviour were sometimes given in explicit details to frighten children into obedience, warning of the ‘Curse of God’ and ‘Utter Darkness’ of Hell for those that disobeyed parents. During this period, story books were not considered necessary for children and fiction was generally disliked as it could lead to children developing vain fantasies and unchristian ideals. These attitudes can still be found today in more extreme faith groups, in particular towards the fantasy genre. (Hall, 2003, p. 137)
A turning point in popular attitudes in Britain came with the theories of philosopher John Locke published in this book Some Thoughts Concerning Education in 1693. He believed children were born with minds like ‘blank slates’, or tabula rasa in Latin, with individual thoughts and ideas. It was their experiences and upbringing that taught them how to behave. He suggested an education for children based on love, kindness and gentle nurture with positive promotion of learning where children could ‘play themselves in what others are whipped for’, which was in stark contrast to Puritanical concepts.
In terms of literature in particular, children should be given ‘some easy, pleasant book, suited to his capacity’ (Hall, 2003, p. 138) with enjoyment as the incentive for further reading. The influence of Locke’s concepts was wide reaching and was adopted by the famous publisher and author John Newbery, a pioneer in children’s print literature. John Newbery wrote, printed and sold books during the 18th century and is credited with popularising literature directed at and written for children, a new concept at the time.
He wrote over 30 books for children, including the Little Pretty Pocket Book in 1744, which was clearly aimed at engaging and entertaining children, with easy language, pictures and included simple incentives such as letters written by characters to the readers. One of his most popular works The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes, from 1765, told the story of an orphaned girl who teaches herself to read and becomes a successful teacher, ‘a model of enlightened teaching, kindness… patience in adversity’ leading a life of ‘unparalleled generosity’.
(Carpenter and Prichard, 1984, pp. 213-214, cited in Hall, 2003, p. 141) While Newbury’s books did not have direct instruction, didactic undertones could be traced through his stories which aimed to both entertain and teach. The popularity of Newbery’s books reflected the changing attitudes towards children and childhood in 18th century England. Childhood came to be seen as a distinct phase from adulthood, with children as a separate readership that could learn through play, reading and gentle instruction and discipline.
This change in attitudes was supplemented by middle-class social reformers of the time who were influenced by the mid-18th century Romantic Movement, based on the theories of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who set out in his ideas in his book Emile, ou de l’education (1762). He believed childhood was a time of ‘original innocence’ as opposed to the Puritanical concept of ‘original sin’, where the purity of the children should be protected from the harsh realities of life and nurtured in a loving environment with play centred-learning, in a natural outdoor environment.
While Rousseau himself did not advocate children’s reading or literature, recommending only Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, his theories influenced many prominent British poets and authors of the time, including Blake, Wordsworth and Kingsley, whose writings promoted the romantic ideal and helped to change popular public opinion, bringing children and childhood to the forefront of social debate and consciousness . The idealistic romantic concepts of childhood strongly affected the middle classes, who were shocked by the plight of child labourers in England whose struggles became apparent during this time period.
The harsh reality for the majority of working-class children in England was a short-lived childhood, limited educational opportunities and manual labour from a young age. The struggle to reduce child labour and increase educational options was complex and protracted process, spanning the 19th and 20th century, and can be traced in children’s literature of the time. Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies (1863) presented the shocking and unfair contrast between real working class childhoods and the Romantic ideal through the story of orphaned chimney sweep Tom.